Tuesday, August 28, 2012


As we watch the most recent fracas in our most ‘august’ Parliament, watching our ‘distinguished’ legislators battle out the issues that matter to India’s present and future, one is baffled as to how we could have been so remiss in our duties. The country needs structural economic reforms like a fat man needing to go on a diet. The problem is that quite like the fat man, our nation and our people are resistant to making the deep and necessarily painful sacrifices so that our future can be more secure. But then, looking at our peers abroad who perhaps need to make just as painful and urgent decisions to safeguard their fates but who would rather demonize and fight amongst themselves to decide who must sacrifice the most, perhaps we are not alone in our absurdity.
What are the choices before us? And do we have it in us, as a nation, to recognize the problems that bedevil us and to solve them as a nation? It is convenient to blame our political class for the morass we are in at present, but quagmires aren’t created overnight. Our polity, our attitude to our governing classes, which in turn influences their attitudes towards us, has been to demand the most while giving up the least. “I am a farmer and I produce the grain that you eat and the cotton that you wear. So you must bear the cost of giving me free electric and water supply and exempt me from taxation.” Or “I am a small business owner. Rather than providing me incentives and the facilities to grow my business, I want you to protect me from bigger competitors by erecting barriers to entry and mollycoddling me.” Where is the intellectual debate, the discourse that drives great nations to frenzies of progress? Have we, the nation that bore the great Buddha, the man who advised humanity to give up, for the sake of salvation, the notion of the personal ego, become a nation of egotistic maniacs? Did a nation that, when burdened by the shackles of colonialism, was selfless become selfish the moment the flag of independence was raised? Or were we always this way – concerned solely with our personal ambition and welfare, the rest of the world be damned?
We often and repeatedly repeat for the sake of our foreign peers the cliché that despite the diversity of ethnicity, language, culture, and creed, India has survived as a unified nation for over 65 years now. I say it’s a cliché but really it’s a fallacy. Vast swathes in the heart of our territory are in a state of quasi-civil war between our armed forces and Maoist insurgents. Our North-eastern brethren are dissatisfied with our lack of attention and our cow-belt-centric polity, and have expressed their dissatisfaction with violence on and off ever since they became a part of our Union. Kashmir remains a carbuncle on our arse, one that will neither heal on its own nor let us sit down and relish our general health otherwise. These pressures have always existed, but that we should have let them both fester and become so noxious is our failing as a people. We may say that we elect our leaders to make the difficult decisions for us – alas, when they do make them (once in a blue moon), we are prone to booting them out to Hades. We may say that how does my life in Mumbai/Delhi/Bangalore/Chennai/Kolkata/etc. Impact the Naxalite struggle, but the fact of the matter is that until we recognize that we as a collective have a problem, we have no way of trying to figure out a solution to it as a collective.
We Indians (and while I say that, I recognize that perhaps every country’s natives, but I am concerned solely with India, so that’s that) are prone to taking umbrage to any non-native making disparaging or even critical remarks about our economy, our political system, our social structure, our urban malaise, our infrastructure deficit, etc. We resent them for saying that we aren’t as good as them, for pulling rank on us. To some extent, we have yet to recover from our colonial hangover; we still feel that the world owes us preferential treatment of some kind to recompense for all the horrors and tortures it inflicted on us while we were being colonised. And yet, we clamour for a seat at the high table as an equal, as a nation that will be the superpower of the future. These two attitudes are fundamentally contradictory and the sooner we realize that basic fact, the better it will be for all of us. Sure, we have the right to be offended by criticism, but when it’s constructive criticism, we have no right to be an ostrich with its head in the sand.
We were a great nation; were, because we have a long way to regaining that stature again. We have to comprehend that fundamental change will come not from the barrel of a gun or the throngs of the mob, but from the citadel of the mind. We, the people of this nation, have to work together to identify the problems, understand how best we can solve them, and then get down to solving them. For some of this, we may need to be inside the system, but for some of it, we can very well work alongside the system. The solution to solving corruption or inefficiency in our public lives isn’t to dismantle or uproot the existing system or to create a Russian-doll structure with overlapping bureaucracies and hierarchies regulating the activities of one another. We must understand the fundamental motivations behind such malaises, understand the incentives that will propel people to do the right thing and disincentives which will discourage the wrong sort of behaviours and apply a mixture of both. We cannot expect our government to be an omnipotent enforcer of public morality when we as a society are content to tolerate immorality so long as it benefits us.

We were a nation of reformers, visionaries, educators, and pioneers, who understood that solving problems means sometimes getting into the muck ourselves rather than always petitioning the government to solve them for us. Sure, the government and the opposition parties/coalitions are clueless about what they should be doing and what they should be focusing on – but what are we, the people, for then? The act of voting, of delegating them to the legislatures to be our representatives, is in no way a carte blanche pass for us to abdicate our nation-building responsibilities. If they are clueless, shake them out of their complacency and remind them of what they are supposed to be representing – the will of the people – and not some twisted Machiavellian fantasy of power and influence.
Political parties vie for our attention in their pretence, in their clamour, to be called our ‘servants’. They call each other enemies of our welfare, while at the same time pursuing the very same policies which they decry. And that we do not call them out on their obvious hypocrisy, that we continue to fall prey to their bait, is surely as much our own failure as much as their perfidy. They will not do what we need them to do, and then conveniently excuse their inaction or even their misguided policies by pointing the finger to our wants and our resistance to change. Like Juvenal would say, “The people who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions, everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.” If they think of us as simpletons who are content with their theatrics, remind them that they have got another thing coming.
We are a nation that has embraced the notion of capitalism but cannot shake off its adherence to socialism. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem lies when the belief in both ideologies starts interfering with our ability to move along the path of progress. For example, can we have FDI in retail while protecting our small business owners and our farmers from being exploited? Yes, we can, if we are willing to put in the time and effort to create a coherent policy which addresses all concerns, safeguards all stakeholders, and still offers a roadmap to innovation and enterprise. Are we capable of such genius? Any nation that can boast of the IITs, of having created one of the finest planned cities of our age (Chandigarh), a nation that is now creating a digital repository of its populace to streamline welfare and ID provisos, is capable of such and even greater genius. For sure, we have a myriad set of concerns, and while we may want to address all of them in the end, we also have to prioritize, i.e. choose. The twist lies in whether we are willing to do it, and whether we are willing to be content with simplistic notions or whether we will be patient enough to thrash out a robust framework? This in the end is the most basic (at the risk of being simplistic) choice before us. The fork has always been in there in the road – dare we make a decision and choose one path for good?

Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy Independence Day, USA!

So you are 236 years old today. A hoary age for any nation; eventful - and you have had your share of events.

Barely a century into your existence and your denizens fought to define the nature and structure of your government, to decide whether the principles espoused by your founding fathers "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" was merely scrawling on a piece of parchment or was it something that was imbued into your very soul, your DNA. You emerged scarred but victorious from that struggle, morally and spiritually rejuvenated. The blemish of slavery was wiped from your forehead and you were pure once again.

But the scar was a wound and it festered, for the differences that exist in the hearts of men can scarcely be obviated by the smoke and the blood of war and destruction. So your promise, your oath to humanity, that all men are created equal, was mortgaged for political gain, to be reclaimed only a century later at great cost and at great human suffering in the meantime. You destroyed and made homeless millions of native Americans, the true sons of the soil, because it was your 'Manifest Destiny' to expand from coast to coast, to claim the land, the rivers, the forests for your own sake, and for none other. You claimed to be a Christian nation, driven by Christian morals, beliefs and principles, and yet it was the meek that you reveled in suppressing and crushing beneath the wheels of your 'progress'.

But you aren't alone in these sins and so you cannot be alone in your penitence. For at least you acknowledged your errors and made amends for it, and for that you are a superior nation. You fought two great wars in the defense of freedom and liberty, albeit entering conflict only when your own people were threatened or harmed, but if selfishness should be a crime, then humanity is guilty of it as a whole. If you were guarded against entering a conflict you didn't see as your own, once you made a cause your own, you embraced every tenet, every facet of it to its entirety and were its greatest champion in the face of all odds.

You were among the pioneers in the race to reach for the stars, and in that goal, we saw ourselves as one people on one earth. This little blue sphere was wracked by your struggle with your foes to protect what you saw as the ideal of freedom and we often stood on the brink of destruction, wondering whether the freedom you were fighting for was worth the effort. It was, and we thank you for your perseverance.

You have lived the words of James Russell Lowell in his Stanzas on Freedom

"Is true Freedom but to break

Fetters for our own dear sake,

And, with leathern hearts, forget

That we owe mankind a debt?

No! true freedom is to share

All the chains our brothers wear,

And, with heart and hand, to be

Earnest to make others free!"

You are a nation of contradictions - a nation founded on the idea of liberty and freedom, and yet one that distrusted its own citizens based on what was the color of their skin or the accent of their tongue or their origins or their beliefs. In that you show your humanity, that while you were created to be a perfect State, you evolve and improve on your faults, just as humanity does in its constant struggles.

You face a greater challenge now. Your foes in earlier days were visible, ones who could be destroyed by sheer force, but your most difficult struggles have been against those demons who infest the minds and souls of men, for there force is ineffective. Like slavery, segregation, fascism, and absolutism, ideas and beliefs cannot be uprooted by drones or guns. It is the hearts and minds of men that you must win if you must emerge victorious in this struggle against terror, anarchy, and the enemies of humanity. There only the brilliance of your ideals and the dint of your will can cause a lasting impact.

As Lady Liberty stands proud on Ellis Island, her torch a beacon promising the warmth of freedom to all those who struggle under oppression, as your star-spangled banner reminds the world of the permanence of the star-filled heavens, so do you, by your actions and your ideals, remind the world of Einstein's words, "Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual that can labor in freedom." Stay true and firm on this path.

Happy Independence Day, America!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

An Ode to Friendship - II

Aristotle says that friendship is one soul dwelling in two bodies. One wonders then if one has more than one friend, does it mean one is constantly inhabited by a number of discrete and different souls, each dear to us? It is an endearing thought that one is bound to one’s friend(s) by a bond far greater than that of time, for whilst time moves on, the soul is immortal (and my apologies to any skeptics out there).

To my mind, when one befriends someone, one unconsciously gives that person a piece of oneself, a small token of one’s being, a part of one’s soul, and in turn receives, equally unconsciously, a similar token of love and amity. One doesn’t keep such tokens locked away in some armoire in one’s room, or in some bank locker; these tokens simply melt away into our being, becoming one with our soul. When we give away a part of ourselves, our soul experiences a momentary fracture, but on receiving someone’s love, the void is made complete, as if it never existed in the first place. Each soul, each heart is so made up of not just one soul, or of different souls, but of a love shared between multiple souls.
You may opine then how does one differentiate between a mere friend and a lover? To that, I respond, can one really love someone without befriending him/her before? You retort, what about love at first sight? Coming from a culture of multiple rebirths, I imagine souls remember a kindred soul across the ages, and once you befriend a soul, you befriend it for eternity. Coming back to how one differentiates between someone who is merely a friend among other friends, and someone who is primus inter pares, it would seem your heart seeks out this soul more fervently than it seeks the others, drawing closer and closer to its presence however and whenever it can. After all, not all friends are created equal, are they?
Have you ever experienced a gut-wrenching anxiety, a pain in your chest, uneasiness, when you quarrel with a friend? It is little to wonder that one feels such torment; after all, aren’t parts of your soul quarrelling with each other, a sort of civil war, and who would deny that a civil war is anything but painful? When you separate and try to move on, you wrench your soul and cause it to fissure, taking apart that which you no longer hold dear, and receiving in turn that of yours which is no longer held dear. Unlike when you create a friendship, when you give a part of yourself voluntarily, detaching a part of yourself in rage is an act of destruction, a moment that grievously wounds your heart and soul. Such wounds take time and patience to heal, and the healing is rarely if ever painless.
Friends are those who care for us, and who we care for, unbidden and even when we and they would rather no one cared for us. And considering we are one soul, do we wonder why?

Sunday, July 04, 2010

An Ode to Friendship

What is friendship? Is it a binding obligation that prolonged companionship confers on one, an obligation to care for, to look out for each other, or is it something that you feel within your heart every waking moment? Does one have to feel duty-bound to respond to the call of a 'friend', or do we leave that to the vagaries of emotion and feelings? Does the string by which friends become one soul inhabiting two bodies, to quote Aristotle, come about by design, by desire, or by the sheer will of the Fates? And if the sundering of the soul from the body after death is described as a torment, then if friends should quarrel, does that sundering, albeit temporary, also cause for similar terror and anguish?

We are told that people everywhere ought to be the same, or that they ought to think alike, and have similar frailties, weaknesses, biases, prejudices, beliefs, desires and aspirations? While a voracious appetite for books may compensate for a life spent in a single country and surroundings, it cannot compensate for the reality that you cannot hope to understand a people merely by the descriptions in tomes. While it is equally true that you could live your entire life with your own people, and yet not hope to grasp everything and every facet of who they really are, it is perhaps a hundredfold, maybe a thousand-fold, more difficult to understand a people different from your own. For it is difficult to understand what offends, what pleases, what amazes, what is held dear and cherished, until you can understand how their heart beats.

And yet when one comes to a foreign land, it is not unheard of for one to find friends who seem like they have always been by one's side, though happiness and grief. There is no hesitation, no derision, no jaundiced vision; just a simple connection between the heart. What drives or inspires such a connection? How can someone who barely knows you, and who you barely know, become so indispensable to your daily routine, without talking to whom a day seems incomplete and bare? Truly, what Pascal says of love is equally true, perhaps many times over, of friendship, that the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.

It is so easy to say that friendship is a social compact, a convenience; one hears of concepts such as 'friends with benefits', and it bewilders me. To suggest that friendship in itself does not benefit the soul, that it, by itself, does not enrich one's existence, that there have been 'benefits' that hitherto have been absent in friendships, is to cheapen what has been held so dear and true of the relationship for ages. And yet maybe it is convenient for me, in my ivory tower, to look down upon this change, this 'progress' in what can be encompassed in the word 'friendship'. It is a confusing change, but one thing I hold true; friendship will endure as the sole relationship whose value in our lives will never diminish, for without a friend, are we not incomplete, a body without a soul, like a lonely leaf on the bough waiting for the winter to come and free it from its torment?

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Why does one fall in love? A stupid question, you say? Do you quote Pascal and tell me that the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of? Maybe it is so. But that is why it is so vexing. To one's mind, the very fact that love and its cause is so inexplicable makes it ever more so desirable and yet so terrifying. Its touch exhilarates the soul, filling the body with sensations that cannot be described adequately in all the words in the world, and yet in that brief moment, the heart experiences fear, a terror of loss, of deprivation, of denial. François, duc de La Rochefoucauld says of true love that it is like ghosts; everyone talks about it, but few have ever seen it. The ivy of suspicion oft creeps onto the edifice of one's affections, and one sees shadows when only light previously appeared. Like Othello to Desdemona, what was once precious as the sun and the moon, as pure as the waters of a bubbling mountain spring, starts to bear semblances of foulness.

And yet I do injustice to love and lovers when I make it seem so simple to describe love, because love in its essence is indescribable. Could the good Duke not have known that just as there are many colors in the palette of nature, there are many kinds of love, true and pure, where distrust, trepidation, or rejection are but pale phantoms in the distance, and where in the moment and for eternity there is only joy and happiness? Where the smallest distance is too great, and yet the greatest distance is not big enough to keep two souls apart? Where being in each other's arms is just as comforting and romantic as a cruise along the Seine? Yes, there are dark moments in each relationship, and love and lovers are no exception to it. But where there is rain, there is also sunshine, and the purity of a relationship, of the intensity of the feelings encompassed within, is tested most sorely by such squabbles. It is better to quarrel and get all the anger out, and then becalmed by love, than to let it fester, like a monster beneath still waters.

So, why does one fall in love? Who knows, and yet I think the thrill of the whole experience, of it being so unknown, makes it even more exciting, no?

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Specter

The darkness fell over him

Like a shroud over a cadaver

His unseeing eyes seeing all

And his silent lips telling countless tales

As he sat there quiet and forlorn

Lost and feeble

His arms trembling on his walking stick

As the cold chilled his arthritic bones

She lay there

Just beyond the great sycamore

Separated from him by death

When nothing could in life

He cursed the tears in his eyes

Those cold pearls of sleet

He cursed the snow that covered her now

For he knew she would hate it so

As the darkness grew

He knew it was time

Time to go, time to depart

He placed the lilies on her headstone again

And slipped into his coffin a few feet away… …

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